BACK STAGE WEST
October 26, 2000
THE LION KING
at the Pantages Theatre
They say you can't argue with success, but here goes. Disney's Tony-winning stage adaptation of its hit animated film The Lion King, now onstage in Hollywood's newly sumptuous Pantages Theatre, is really two shows for the price of one: The first is a captivating, haunting, endlessly inventive visual and aural feast, with South African choral-and-drum music by Lebo M, sinuous choreography by Garth Fagan, almost edibly gorgeous lighting by Donald Holder, and the ingenious puppetry of Michael Curry. As shaped by director Julie Taymor, this first show is indeed as groundbreaking and replete with theatrical wonders as the hype has promised.
The second show, which shares the stage uncomfortably with the first, is a tacky rehash of the animated film, complete with Elton John and Tim Rice's unprepossessing songs, and Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi's flat characterizations and vapid dialogue; blame for the clunky lyrics to the new music is spread among five writers. While much of the design ingenuity of the aforementioned masters is also evident in this other show, its key elements--book, lyrics, and music--range from mildly diverting to appalling.
What's worst, though, about the ungainly live-animation portions of The Lion King is that they're infused with an aggressively insipid tone, immediately recognizable as a sort of default Disney house style, which crops up in its less inspired kiddie material, of both the animated and live variety (Fantasyland Theatre, anyone?). This is undeniably a matter of taste and age--but then, last I checked, The Lion King is not a carny attraction but a Broadway musical aimed as much at adult theatregoers as the Simba set.
There's a difference between beautiful and cute, and the gulf gapes wide here. One transition illustrates: After the young lion Simba's father, Mufasa (a stiff Rufus Bonds Jr.), is trampled to death in a wildebeest stampede (a nice, stirring stage effect), we get some perfunctory story points over his motionless corpse, as Mufasa's plotting brother Scar (an assuredly dastardly John Vickery) lays the guilt on Simba (Adrian Diamond on the night reviewed) and encourages him to get lost; Simba does so with a minimum of tears or fuss, and there's some snickering by a trio of unfunny hyenas. It's a cartoonish postmortem for the late great king of the Pridelands. At last, though, the stage goes quiet and Mufasa is properly mourned in a gorgeous a cappella trio by the baboon Rafiki (Fuchsia), the widowed queen (Carla Renata Williams), and the young lioness Nala (Lisa Tucker on the night reviewed).
That would make a great first act curtain--at least we might go out feeling something--but instead we've first got to meet meerkat Timon (Danny Rutigliano) and warthog Pumbaa (Bob Bouchard), the comic duo who will raise the young Simba in exile and teach him a life of unambitious subsistence. While Rutigliano and Bouchard offer a dose of humor and a semblance of character in a show parched for it, and while their puppet work is admirable and deft, we're back in toyland here; Timon comes off like a Borscht-Belt Tigger and Pumbaa like Stimpy with tusks.
It's hard to begrudge a show so obviously eager to please, so lavishly realized, or so enthusiastically embraced. But the daisy chain of world-beating, magical moments in Lion King--the "Circle of Life" opening, a lionesses' hunting dance, a grassland ballet--just doesn't survive the show's stampede of pap and tickle. Next time Disney so liberally bankrolls a strong director, it would be great if there were also a score and a book--a musical, in short--worthy of her or our time.
"The Lion King," presented by Walt Disney Theatricals at the Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 1 & 6:30 p.m. Oct. 19-Oct. 1, 2001. $12-77. (213) 365-5555.